Dragon is a free-flying spacecraft designed to deliver both cargo and people to orbiting destinations. It is the only spacecraft currently flying that is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth. The Dragon vehicle has two variants, cargo, and crew. Both capsules return to Earth and splashdown in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans respectively. SpaceX then uses ships to recover and return them to land for re-use.
Cargo Dragon has been flying since 2010, resupplying the International Space Station under a contract with NASA. Crew Dragon first flew during its demonstration mission in March 2019. Cargo Dragon is recovered by NRC Quest on the West Coast and Crew Dragon is recovered by GO Searcher and GO Navigator on the East Coast.
Under the Commerical Resupply Services contract for NASA, Cargo Dragon is launched to and from the International Space Station supplying it with resources and equipment. The Dragon capsule is unique among other currently-flying spacecraft in that it can return a large amount of cargo back to Earth. SpaceX deploys a ship named NRC Quest to recover the capsule and its cargo from the Pacific Ocean.
NRC Quest is a platform supply vessel that has been modified by SpaceX to have a protective tent, crane, communications equipment and a lifting frame that allows it to recover the capsule from the water.
Ahead of splashdown, NRC Quest will be dispatched for the Port of Los Angeles and wait near the pre-determined landing zone. After Dragon lands, the ship will move in and recover the capsule. Smaller fast-approach vessels are deployed to pick up the parachutes from the ocean surface and assist in maneuvering the capsule.
Dragon is often filled with time-sensitive NASA experiments. As soon as the capsule has been recovered, NRC Quest will immediately head for the Port of Los Angeles so that the experiments can be quickly handed over to NASA.
NRC Quest is the sole support ship based on the West Coast. The ship is used to support booster landings on Just Read the Instructions as well as recovering the Cargo Dragon capsule.
The ship has been used by SpaceX since 2015, recovering Dragon over 10 times and supporting 7 booster landings.
From 2019, SpaceX will launch Astronauts to the International Space Station under the Commerical Crew Program for NASA. SpaceX will launch Astronauts using the Crew Dragon capsule.
After a stay at the ISS, the capsule will descend back to Earth and splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. A ship named GO Searcher will then retrieve the capsule and its occupants. Under NASA requirements, recovery crews must be able to egress astronauts onto GO Searcher in under 60 minutes, in all conditions. In February 2018, GO Searcher was used by SpaceX to demonstrate their ability to do this for NASA during a sea trial.
Under normal recovery operations, Astronauts will be recovered and return back to Port Canaveral on board GO Searcher. In the event of a medical emergency, a helicopter will land on GO Searcher's helipad and transport the Astronauts back to land faster. GO Searcher has been retrofitted with a medical treatment facility that will be used to treat the injured until the helicopter arrives. SpaceX completed demonstrations of this process for NASA in Fall 2018. GO Searcher spent the second half of 2018 conducting trials to perfect the recovery operation.
GO Searcher is the Crew Dragon recovery ship. Originally brought in to recover fairings, the ship was re-assigned and upgraded with a medical treatment facility, helipad, lifting frame and communications equipment to support the recovery of the spacecraft.
Throughout 2018 the ship conducted numerous sea trials to practice and demonstrate the recovery operation to NASA officials.
GO Searcher recovered a Crew Dragon capsule for the first time during the Crew Demo-1 mission.
For this test flight, Dragon was to splashdown just under a week after lift-off in the Atlantic Ocean. Dragon was set to land roughly ~400km offshore for this first flight, in an area similar to the booster LZ. Future recoveries will see the operation occur significantly closer at ~39km offshore, enabling the fleet to be back in port in a matter of hours.
GO Searcher was carrying the SpaceX recovery team, with GO Navigator carrying NASA officials and the medical team. During the webcast, it was mentioned that for the next mission all 3 teams will be aboard GO Searcher.
Splashdown of Dragon happened exactly on time at 13:45 UTC, Friday 8th March 2019. A motion tracking camera fitted to the bow of GO Navigator provided stunning views of Dragon descending gracefully towards the water where fast-approach boats, deployed from GO Searcher and GO Navigator, waited to move in and recover.
NASA requirements for the mission were for crews to be able to recover Dragon within 60 minutes of splashdown. It took 67 minutes to complete the recovery operation - slightly off the target time. The two recovery ships then returned to Port Canaveral where Dragon was lifted off of GO Searcher within the Trident Wharf submarine basin and taken away for processing.